At first, it seems as if the heroine of Kate Kerrigan's latest novel, The Lost Garden, has been snatched from central casting.
Aileen Doherty is a flame-haired beauty who is on her way to Scotland to pick praties to help her family get through the harsh reality of winter on an island off the west coast of Ireland.
Before she sets off, Jimmy Walsh, a cocky young fisherman from a neighbouring island, catches sight of her and declares her to be "the most beautiful thing he has ever seen".
Just when you tee yourself up for a fanciful love story, Kate Kerrigan does what she does best – she whisks you off into another time and place and makes the unexpected happen with effortless ease.
Her excellent Ellis Island trilogy followed the fortunes of Ellie Hogan and brought readers on an evocative and convincing journey from the Irish War of Independence to the American Jazz Age, through the Depression of the 1930s and on to the hollow glamour of 1940s' Hollywood.
This time, Kerrigan has set her story closer to her Mayo home, drawing on the tragic story of the Kirkintilloch Ten, a crew of Irish 'tattie hokers' (or potato pickers) who died in a fire while working in Scotland in 1934.
The Lost Garden is set almost a decade later, during World War II, but Kerrigan's depiction of life for Irish seasonal workers is so convincing that it reads almost like a work of historical biography.
However, the author has made a point of honouring the real victims of the tragedy, emphasising that her story is just a work of fiction. For all that, her disquieting account of the accidental bothy fire that will scar the lives of so many of her characters is told with chilling realism.
Aileen returns home numb and bereft, but the fate of the man who has tried to win her heart, Jimmy Walsh, is uncertain. To take her mind off the pain, she sets about restoring the lost garden of the title.
Meanwhile, the focus switches over and back from wartime London.
Kerrigan's prowess as a historical novelist again comes to the fore. She paints a vivid picture of the Irish in Camden Town and the wounded ex-servicemen trying to rebuild their lives
If you plan to read The Lost Garden, allow yourself a day to disappear into this fine writer's world because once you enter it, you won't want to leave.
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